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Yale University Press
The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia

The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia

by Bill Hayton


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The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia

A discerning account of simmering conflict in the South China Sea and why the world can’t afford to be indifferent

China’s rise has upset the global balance of power, and the first place to feel the strain is Beijing’s back yard: the South China Sea. For decades tensions have smoldered in the region, but today the threat of a direct confrontation among superpowers grows ever more likely. This important book is the first to make clear sense of the South Sea disputes. Bill Hayton, a journalist with extensive experience in the region, examines the high stakes involved for rival nations that include Vietnam, India, Taiwan, the Philippines, and China, as well as the United States, Russia, and others. Hayton also lays out the daunting obstacles that stand in the way of peaceful resolution.
Through lively stories of individuals who have shaped current conflicts—businessmen, scientists, shippers, archaeologists, soldiers, diplomats, and more—Hayton makes understandable the complex history and contemporary reality of the South China Sea. He underscores its crucial importance as the passageway for half the world’s merchant shipping and one-third of its oil and gas. Whoever controls these waters controls the access between Europe, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Pacific. The author critiques various claims and positions (that China has historic claim to the Sea, for example), overturns conventional wisdoms (such as America’s overblown fears of China’s nationalism and military resurgence), and outlines what the future may hold for this clamorous region of international rivalry.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300186833
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 10/28/2014
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 660,935
Product dimensions: 6.40(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Bill Hayton is a longtime reporter with BBC News, specializing in contemporary Asia. He has also written for The Economist, the South China Morning Post, and the National Interest.

Read an Excerpt

The South China Sea

The Struggle For Power In Asia

By Bill Hayton


Copyright © 2014 Bill Hayton
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-300-18954-4


Wrecks and Wrongs

Prehistory to 1500

Victor Paz Drew breath. In front of him lay three slabs, about the length of a person in all. This was going to take some effort. He took a moment to control his excitement: hope and caution battling for supremacy. As he paused, larks — hinay hinay in Tagalog — flitted among the bili trees, their songs echoing around the cave mouth, heralds for an archaeological revelation. Above the cave, the huge Ille limestone tower soared out of the paddy fields, dominating the wide, green valley floor. By now, the others had put down their tools to watch, forming an audience around him. The middle stone looked the easiest to lift. Victor reached down and grabbed it with both hands. Gingerly, he prised it away.

Beneath the slab was a ribcage: smashed but still recognisably human. Victor grinned. This was good, a fine reward after a season of digging. The small crowd pressed in around the edge of the pit, a metre above where Victor was kneeling. As the stone was placed aside they could see that the skeleton had been buried with ceremony. In the centre of the chest was a hammerstone: a vital tool for a Neolithic craftsman. Above it lay a small clutch of shells, still pressed together, although the pouch that once confined them had long rotted away. Two large bailer shells were placed to one side, but what would later prove to be the most significant find lay at the top of the chest: a necklace of discs interspersed with conus beads — jewelry made from tiny cone-shaped shells.

Victor removed the two remaining slabs, revealing the entire skeleton. Now he could see just how elaborate the burial had been. Around the body were more stones, enclosing it within a deliberate shape. Above the head, the stones formed a point with a polished pebble at the apex. As head of the Archaeological Studies Programme at the University of the Philippines, Victor was obliged to be a professional sceptic. But he knew this find could have an emotional importance as much as a scientific one. His predecessor in the role — and his mentor — had been Wilhelm Solheim and for decades Solheim had scoured this end of Palawan Island, piecing together evidence for a theory that would explain how and why peoples, languages and cultures spread across Southeast Asia. But after a lifetime of research around the South China Sea, Solheim was running out of time. At the age of 81 his faculties were slowly leaving him. The discoveries in the Illé Cave in April 2005 would be his reward.

Victor stood back and looked again at the stones surrounding the body. They were in the shape of a boat, heading into the shadows of the cave and the afterlife beyond. The polished stone marked the prow of the boat and bailer shells, as their name implies, are vital accessories for anyone taking a leaky canoe onto the ocean. But even Victor wasn't prepared for the next revelation. The conus beads were taken to the laboratory in Manila for testing. Because animals make shells from the nutrients and minerals they eat, they carry molecular markers of the time and place where they live and die. And these conus shells, which had been collected, crafted, turned into jewelry and placed in this burial, had lived and died at least 4,200 years ago. And that, to Victor Paz and Wilhelm Solheim, was the evidence they had been seeking for years. It gave them a chance to clinch a debate that has divided archaeologists: how and why did modern humans populate Southeast Asia? Their discovery appeared proof that the people who buried their dead at Illé Cave were already maritime people more than four millennia ago. That would knock out a key plank of the dominant explanation that Southeast Asian culture had simply diffused from southern China. 'We still have to know more,' admits Paz, 'but it is more and more becoming an argument that cannot be ignored.'

Paz, Solheim and their colleagues had journeyed to a remote valley in the wild northern tip of Palawan to try to win an argument. Their motivations were both personal and scientific. They were deliberately looking for evidence that might support a theory they had already formed but their methods were honest, their team was open and their reasoning was logical. Unfortunately, the independent pursuit of knowledge is only one of several motives for archaeological exploration in the South China Sea. Others are less interested in the big questions because they have chosen their answers already: their purpose is to find treasure or justify territorial claims. And those with less noble intentions have access to vastly greater resources.

Mixed motives among archaeologists and historians — and their masters — in Southeast Asia are nothing new. For centuries, the writing of the region's history has revealed as much about contemporary obsessions as about the past. Has Southeast Asia been anything more than a stage upon which outsiders have played imperial games? Are the people who live around the South China Sea descended from China or from somewhere else? Were the great civilisations of Champa, Angkor and Srivijaya homegrown or implanted? Did culture and civilisation flow from one source or from many? Who controlled territory and what did that actually mean? Colonialist, nationalist and internationalist historians have all answered these questions differently. Recent evidence from linguistics, ceramics, genetics, botany and sedimentology is shining new light. The more it reveals, the more complex the story becomes.

* * *

The earliest evidence of humans in Southeast Asia dates from about 1.5 million years ago. Remains of 'Java Man', more formally known as homo erectus, have been found both in Java and in China. But he, and his wives and children, appear to have died out around 50,000 years ago, possibly chased into oblivion by his smarter relative, homo sapiens. Modern humans probably reached Australia around 50,000 years ago, suggesting they had already settled Southeast Asia en route. Skulls found in Borneo and the Philippines indicate that modern humans had arrived in those places by 40,000 and 22,000 years ago respectively. The problem is that there's very little other evidence — mainly because the world then looked very different. Sea level 17,000 years ago was around 120 metres lower than it is today. The modern islands of Java, Sumatra and Borneo were joined to the mainland and Australia was joined to New Guinea. If, as seems likely, homo sapiens lived along the sea shore, then the villages he built and the tools he manufactured now lie well beyond the reach of archaeology, 120 metres under water. There are huge gaps in our understanding and very little evidence with which to close them.

But as we come closer to the present — a few thousand years ago — the evidence multiplies and so do the arguments. How did scattered subsistence settlements evolve into urban centres? How did people who knew only stone tools come to master bronze and iron smelting? And how were these innovations spread? The first explanations sprang from a remarkable insight by a German scholar, Otto Dempwolff. Around the start of the twentieth century he began to demonstrate similarities between the different languages of Southeast Asia. By the time the American linguist Robert Blust came to develop this work at the end of the twentieth century, links had been discovered between more than 1,000 languages spoken as far apart as Taiwan, Hawaii, Easter Island, New Zealand, Malaysia and Madagascar. The implications were extraordinary. They demonstrated that people separated by thousands of miles of ocean — covering half the world's circumference — shared cultural roots. Blust argued that these roots could all be traced back to a single language spoken in Taiwan around 5,500 years ago, a language he called 'proto-Austronesian'. And by showing how this language had divided and multiplied, he devised a theory linking the diffusion of Austronesian languages across the islands of Southeast Asia to the migration of peoples, the settlement of new territories and the spread of agricultural and other technologies. It became known as the 'Out of Taiwan' model.

But where had these proto-Austronesian speakers come from? The Australia-based archaeologist Peter Bellwood believes that they were descendants of the farmers who had first mastered the art of rice-growing in the Yangtze Valley around 8,500 years ago. In this period 'China' was home to many different language groups apart from proto-Austronesian including Sino-Tibetan (from which evolved Chinese, Tibetan and Burmese), Austroasiatic (from which Vietnamese and Khmer developed) and Tai (Thai). In addition to growing rice, these peoples also kept pigs and poultry, made pottery and used stone tools. Over the following millennia, pressures at home and opportunities abroad caused these groups to move across East and Southeast Asia. In Bellwood's account, the proto-Austronesian speakers gradually spread east and south, eventually reaching the Chinese coasts by around 5,500 years ago.

So far, these migrations had travelled over land. But the next phase of the Austronesian odyssey was radically different. Sea levels 5,000 years ago were pretty much the same as they are now, making the Taiwan Strait about 130 kilometres wide at its narrowest point. Yet this hurdle appears to have been overcome, because archaeologists have recovered evidence of rice-growing dating from around this time on Taiwan. Over the next thousand years or so, enough Austronesian speakers had arrived or reproduced on the island to overwhelm any remnants of previous migrations and their language had already begun to split into dialects. In Bellwood's model, the next step was 'out of Taiwan'.

The first step was the journey southwards across the Luzon Strait. By hopping to the Batanes Islands, the longest single stretch was about 80 kilometres. Further hops would have brought the voyagers to Luzon, the main island of the Philippines, where, again, they would have encountered humans from much earlier migrations. The new arrivals, with their more advanced technology and culture, established settlements, prospered, grew in number and moved on again. Bellwood argues that from about 4,000 years ago (2000 BCE) the people who came 'out of Taiwan' spread throughout the rest of the Philippines and then west into present-day Indonesia. Others went east. By 1500 BCE, some had reached the Mariana Islands, 2,500 kilometres from Luzon and then carried on to Fiji. By 800 BCE Tonga had been settled, by 300 CE Hawaii, and by 1200 New Zealand.

It's a dramatic story and there is plenty of evidence to support it: the languages themselves, archaeological finds and genetic research. But there are also several problems with it. Some finds in the Batanes Islands are newer than those in Luzon, suggesting people moved there from the south, not the north. Burial techniques found in southern Vietnam are older than similar ones found in Taiwan and Luzon. Evidence for early rice-growing in Taiwan is rare, suggesting it was not widespread there before about 4,000 years ago; genetic analysis of rice suggests that different strains — from India and Java — may have travelled through the region from south to north before 'Chinese' varieties travelled in the opposite direction. Genetics also shows that the Pacific pig and the Pacific rat came from Indochina, not Taiwan. The objections have mounted up.

As a result, a rival explanation for the spread of language and culture around the South China Sea has emerged. Rather than stressing a flow of people 'out of Taiwan', it proposes a constantly communicating network transporting information and technology in many directions. It also makes coastal China both a recipient and a transmitter of this culture, but not its sole source. And that is why Bill Solheim found himself celebrating the discovery of a grave in northern Palawan.

Solheim had begun his search for the origins of Southeast Asian civilisations more than half a century before, studying at Berkeley and Arizona and digging in the Philippines in the 1950s. It was his work on pottery that drew him to develop a very different model to Peter Bellwood's. He argued that similarities between 2,500-year-old pots he found in Kalanay on the Philippine island of Masbate and others recovered in the 1920s from Sa Huynh on the coast of southern Vietnam were not coincidental. Many of them were marked with very precise geometric patterns — triangles, zigzags, parallel lines and hatchings — cut or pressed into the clay. Some of the pots had sophisticated shapes and many were coloured with a distinctive red slip. From this beginning, Solheim's perspective widened to include pottery from other sites spread around Southeast Asia, other kinds of objects — in particular tools and jewelry — and then other time periods, both later and earlier. Many of his colleagues disagreed, arguing the definition of 'similarity' had now become too vague to be useful. Nonetheless, Solheim pressed on. His next task was to try to explain how these similarities had come about.

One crucial insight was that although similar objects could be found in many places, they appeared there at different times. So while the 'stepped adze' (an early cutting tool) was developed in southeastern China about 5,000 years ago and spread to Taiwan and Vietnam over the following millennium, burial jars found in Vietnam and Palawan date from 4,000 years ago but only 1,000 years ago in Luzon and Taiwan. Similarly, the curious jade ear pendant known as the 'lingling o' (shaped like a circle, broken near the top and with points facing down and to the sides) has been dated to 4,000 years ago in Vietnam but to more recent periods in Taiwan and the Philippines. To Solheim, this meant that objects, knowledge and culture had developed in different places and then spread backwards and forwards over huge distances around mainland Southeast Asia and the islands, evolving as they travelled.

So he began to develop the idea of a maritime network: semi-nomadic communities travelling by sea and river and living by hunting, gathering and trading. The problem for Solheim was that these people, if they existed, left little trace: no permanent settlements, no monuments and no written records. It required a leap of imagination to believe in their existence. But then he realised that the evidence was actually still around. As late as the 1950s the American anthropologist Alexander Spoehr encountered women from the Samal people on the Philippine island of Mindanao who had never been on land and were convinced they would be attacked by evil spirits if they ever did so. Even today, many of the Badjao 'sea gypsies' of the Philippines, the Bajau of Malaysia, the Orang Laut of Indonesia, the Tanka of southern China and the Dan of Vietnam continue to live in and around the sea, surviving by fishing and trading. Indeed, all around the region, from China to Vietnam and Thailand, there are still communities of maritime peoples carrying on a form of life that, in essence, began many thousands of years ago. Solheim coined a word for these people derived from the Austronesian words for 'south island' and 'people'. He called them the Nusantao.

To really understand them we have to invert our ideas about land as a place of safety and the sea as a place of danger. Land can be hostile, home to dangerous creatures, thieves and tax collectors. The sea is full of food and, for the most part, easy to travel on. Supplies of fruit and vegetables can be harvested from river banks or traded and, as the New Zealand anthropologist Atholl Anderson has explained, even the problem of fresh water can be overcome. Large quantities can be carried inside stoppered lengths of bamboo. It's robust, easily packed and, when emptied, the bamboo can be used to repair the boat. Add in some rainwater and fluid from raw fish and sea journeys of up to three or four weeks become unproblematic.

The beauty of Solheim's model, which he called the Nusantao Maritime Trading and Communication Network, is that it doesn't require any major rupture with the past, or any single great act of migration. It doesn't rely on, or exclude, any particular ethnic group. Technologies and cultures evolved gradually. Some Nusantao speak Austronesian languages, others don't; some are semi-settled, some are entirely nomadic; some live on the sea, some in river mouths, others far inland. They interacted with settled people and the populations must have mixed. They never consciously acted as a team and their technology was simple, yet by small acts of travelling and trading the Nusantao created a vast network of sail and paddle power which could transport sea slugs from northern Australia to the dining tables of southern China and banana trees from the forests of New Guinea to the gardens of Madagascar. And on each journey goods, knowledge and culture passed back and forth.


Excerpted from The South China Sea by Bill Hayton. Copyright © 2014 Bill Hayton. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Maps, ix,
Introduction, xiii,
1 Wrecks and Wrongs: Prehistory to 1500, 1,
2 Maps and Lines: 1500 to 1948, 29,
3 Danger and Mischief: 1946 to 1995, 61,
4 Rocks and Other Hard Places: the South China Sea and International Law, 90,
5 Something and Nothing: Oil and Gas in the South China Sea, 121,
6 Drums and Symbols: Nationalism, 151,
7 Ants and Elephants: Diplomacy, 180,
8 Shaping the Battlefield: Military Matters, 209,
9 Cooperation and its Opposites: Resolving the Disputes, 239,
Epilogue, 266,
Notes, 270,
Acknowledgements and Further Reading, 285,
Index, 289,

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